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Teacher's Guide

Regional History
Southwest Alaska
1924-1959 The Recent Years

In this section you will learn about:

  • The impact of air transportation
  • World War II in Southwest Alaska
  • Post war industries
  • Resolution of land issues

Airplanes take over winter freight

In 1926 pilot Joseph Crosson flew from Fairbanks to Bethel. The arrival of the airplane marked the beginning of immense changes for Southwest Alaska. Regular year round air mail and passenger service was soon established to Bethel. Regular mail service to Unalaska was established by Pan American Airways in 1932 .

The new air service affected salmon fisheries of the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers. Before air service, most Natives in the area spent summer months at fish camps, catching and drying fish for a winter supply of food for themselves and their dog teams. Airplanes could transport freight more quickly, although more expensively, than dog teams. As the need for dogs decreased so did the need for salmon, and the subsistence fishery began to decline.

White gold in Goodnews Bay

In 1927 an Eskimo found white gold platinum in the Goodnews Bay area. Placer mining operations began shortly after. In 1934 the Goodnews Bay Mining Company mechanized its operation. Track vehicles, a pump, hydraulic pipes, and other equipment made it possible to process in only a few hours the amount of gravel that a miner could shovel in a year.

Building defense

In 1938 a report evaluating America's naval defenses called for enlarging naval bases at Sitka and Dutch Harbor and building a new naval air station and military base at Kodiak. Before construction of the naval and military bases began in 1939, the town of Kodiak had a population of about 400. It had no telephones or electric lights, no public sewer or water systems, no bank, and no hospital. The only car in town was an oil truck. By 1941, 2,500 workers were competing for housing with military families.

When defense construction began, Southwest Alaska had almost no landing fields for airplanes. The government hired Bob Reeve, a pilot with considerable experience flying in back country around Valdez and Fairbanks, to survey the region for the best locations for runways and airfields. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, before airfields were completed at Cold Bay, at Dutch Harbor, and at Umnak.

Early in the morning on June 3, 1942, airplanes flew down Unalaska Valley toward Fort Mears. For 20 minutes Japanese dropped bombs on the base. The pilots encountered unexpected fire from the base anti aircraft guns. A secret Japanese code had been broken just in time to alert American forces that an attack on the Aleutian Islands was planned. Thirty five Americans died in the attack on Dutch Harbor. One Japanese plane was shot down. A second raid the following day blew up fuel tanks and gun emplacements.

The attack on the Aleutian Islands was part of a much larger plan. It was a smokescreen to cover the movement of Japanese ships to Midway Island in the Pacific Ocean where they hoped to surprise and destroy the American Pacific fleet. Learning of the plan by the broken code, American forces were able to defeat the Japanese at Midway. The defeat led the Japanese to try to salvage part of their plan by securing a foothold in the Aleutian Islands. On June 7, Japanese troops waded ashore at the western islands of Kiska, Attu, and Aggatu. They were the first enemy forces to occupy United States soil since the British during the War of 1812.

Efforts to retake the islands began almost immediately. Advance air bases were built at Port Heiden on the Alaska Peninsula and Adak Island in the Aleutian Islands to make it easier to strike the Japanese. Army and navy installations were built on Atka Island. From Adak regular bombing runs were made on Japanese installations at Kiska and Attu. A decisive American victory in a naval battle with Japanese forces in the Komandorski Islands in March of 1943 severed the enemy supply lines. Finally, a plan, code named Landcrab," to recapture Attu began.

Retaking the islands was not easy. American troops available for an assault were inadequately equipped for northern warfare. They had no combat experience and their lightweight clothing was inappropriate for the environment. To make matters worse, the army and navy had not coordinated their attack plans. By the time "Landcrab" was launched, the Japanese were expecting them.In the early morning of May 11, the battleships Pennsylvania and Idaho began bombarding Attu's Chichagof Harbor. At the same time, troops were landed at three spots on the island shore. The Japanese, led by Colonel Yasuya Yamasaki, controlled the ridges and the valley passes. For three weeks, an intense battle brought heavy casualties to both the Japanese and American forces. The American dead numbered 549. Casualties, half of them from frostbite or other cold related injuries, totaled more than 3,000. By the battle's end, nearly all 2,351 members of the Japanese garrison had been killed. The few survivors committed suicide rather than be captured.

Once Attu was recovered, the recapture of Kiska began. A landing force of 35,000 troops, including 5,000 Canadians, was massed in mid August. Day after day American airplanes bombed the island. When the assault teams landed they found the island deserted except for one small dog. A month before Japanese destroyers had slipped into Kiska under cover of heavy fog and removed the several thousand people of the Japanese garrison. In the unopposed landing 24 Americans and Canadians, who mistook one another for the enemy, were killed.

Until the end of the war, islands were fortified, bases were manned, and bombing raids were made on Japan's Kurile Islands from Aleutian Islands' airfields.

Post war recovery is difficult

When the war ended, Southwest Alaskans who had been removed from their villages found it difficult to start over. Both their houses and their economy had been severely damaged. Prices for furs were low. Fishing was poor.

The war brought improved transportation and communication facilities to the Aleutian Islands. There were radio ranges, weather stations, and 8,300 miles of charted, navigational airways. Some 50 airfields were scattered through the chain.

In 1947 pilot Bob Reeve bought a surplus C 47 transport plane for $20,000. He soon flew enough round trips hauling freight from Seattle to Anchorage to buy three surplus C 46s. He then filed a request with the Civil Aeronautics Board to begin regularly-scheduled service from Anchorage to Attu, 1, 783 miles to the west. It was the only commercial air route in Alaska still unassigned. By the end of the first year of operation Reeve Aleutian Airways was making two flights a week.

In 1948 Reeve was awarded a temporary five year certificate for a 2,500 mile Aleutian and Pribilof islands route. It was the longest approved twin engine over water route in the world, and it included some of the world's worst icing conditions. Besides worrying about his airplanes in flight, Reeve had to worry about them on the ground. For several years, Reeve Aleutian Airways had to maintain the landing strips, something few others airlines were ever required to do.

Throughout the region the residents needed jobs. The canneries in Bristol Bay had been the major employer, but in the 1950s they were suffering. The numbers of salmon returning to Bristol Bay to spawn showed a marked decrease. The conversion to gas motors on the fishing boats caused over-fishing. Processors were shifting from canning to freezing salmon.

Floating canneries and freezing techniques brought a new industry to Kodiak Island. Russians and Japanese had processed king crab before World War II, but American processors had not competed. Following the war, Wakefield Fisheries developed a process for freezing crab meat that made it profitable to harvest the giant king crabs around Kodiak Island. In time the former Russian headquarters became the "king crab capital of the world."

Summary questions

  1. How did the beginning of air service in the 1920s affect Southwest Alaska salmon fisheries?
  2. Why did the Japanese invade the Aleutian Islands?

Inquiry question

  1. Platinum mining has been important in Southwest Alaska. Find out is there are any other platinum mines in Alaska or in the United States. What is platinum used for?

The Sea, A Common Bond
1743-1867 Era of Russian Violence
1867-1912 The Era of American Exploitation
1912 1924 Lessons From The Land
1924-1959 The Recent Years
1959-1980 Joining Old And New
Suggested Readings

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